/ Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design

May 15, 2013

Zahra Al-Harazi went from unemployed mother of three to owning and running a multi-million-dollar design studio. We know – it sounds like some cockamamie testimonial from a latenight infomercial. But this particular success story happens to be true and we’ll tell you how she did it (no “easy payments” of $79.95 required).

Zahra Al-Harazi’s life in Canada began as an all-too-typical immigrant tale. Moving here from Yemen in 1996, she had to contend with an unrecognized university degree, three young children at home and a confusing new culture.

Today, she’s the owner and creative director of Calgary-based design studio Foundry, a million-dollar agency that builds marketing campaigns for companies around the world; she’s racked up an impressive collection of awards and a reputation as one of the best in her business. It’s a rise that defies belief and certainly not something the 40-year-old single mom had in mind for herself 15 years ago.“I was pretty content in where I was in life. I don’t think I had the drive and the ambition that I do now,” she reflects. “And the interesting thing is, it took a minimum-wage job for me to find it.”

Still in her mid-20s, the kids in school, her former husband always travelling for work, boredom set in. So she went to the mall and landed a sales job at Danier Leather. In just a few months, she made more on commission than anyone in the company…as a part-time employee. “It just kind of sparked something,” Al-Harazi shrugs. “Tapping into peoples’ psychology and figuring out what it’s going to take to make them buy something was the interesting part for me.”

It was a talent that would serve her well years later in making Foundry a standout in the industry. “Even though we are a design studio, design is one of the last things we do. It’s more looking at our client’s business plan, and where they want to go in a year or five or 10. That’s what sets us apart, I think.”

Of course, before she could consider having a career of any kind, Al-Harazi needed to get another degree. Excited to revisit a childhood love of drawing, she enrolled in the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), but was in for a bit of a rude awakening. “I didn’t have as much talent as I thought I did. My teachers were really quick to point that out.”

For a woman who had always felt like an outsider, it was another cruel rejection. Being half-Indian and having little command of the Arabic tongue, growing up in Yemen was a struggle. “I remember a lot of times feeling like I didn’t belong,” she laments, “and when I came to Canada, it was a little bit of the same thing. Then I went to ACAD, and I was again feeling lost, because I’m like, “OK, well I don’t know how to draw.”

But as it turns out, Zahra Al-Harazi did belong at ACAD, just not in the way she’d thought. Though lacking the artist’s touch, she had an eye for design. “I grew up in a third-world country where people don’t have enough to eat; we didn’t have design books. If we did, they were hugely censored,” she explains. “So it was new to me. And it was like this big light bulb just went up.”

Graduating in 2002 with a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication, Al-Harazi now had a platform to launch her new life. After spending just 11 months at a smaller agency, she moved on to one of the big boys; in a year and a half she was promoted from junior designer to creative director. A meteoric rise that would thrill just about anyone, but by now, the ambition sparked by her first modest mall job wasn’t so easily quenched. “As I discovered who I was and as I found my confidence, there was a certain way I wanted to do stuff,” she asserts. “I wanted to do something my way; I couldn’t do that working for someone else.”

As fate would have it, Alison Wattie, who had previously interviewed her for a job was in need of a business partner. Al-Harazi accepted and in 2006, the two formed Foundry Communications. In that first year alone, they cleared $1-million dollars, and profits have kept on growing. She’s since bought out her partners, and is now sole proprietor of the company. Still, when asked to explain her success, the commendably modest self-starter is quick to share credit with her “brilliant” employees and the network of associates she’s never afraid to consult when facing a new challenge.

But there’s a more important asset-powering Foundry: its owner’s persistence. “I don’t easily take ‘No’ for an answer. If there’s a roadblock, I’ll find a way around it or I’ll find a different road,” she offers. “If one thing doesn’t work, something else will.”

And for certain, Al-Harazi dabbles in a lot of things. On top of working 40-hour days (or so it seems), she is heavily involved in the community, donating $100,000 of her company’s time to pro bono work every year, sitting on boards of directors for support groups, and writing columns for publications like The National Post.

Her favourite extracurricular though, is home cooking, a hobby she approaches with exactly the DIY mindset you’d expect, lifting elements from one of her 200 cookbooks, but never sticking to an established recipe.

“I tend to make things up a lot. I love cooking Italian food and French food. Everything I make is really not healthy. It’s very, very rich,” she laughs.

Is it the persistence that lets her juggle all of this and stay at the top of her field? In part, yes. But the real key? “Content” is no longer a word that can be applied to Zahra Al-Harazi. “If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, good is going to be good enough,” she concludes. “Good enough? It just never works in my world.”



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